Saturday, January 9, 2016

Steaming in the New Year

For my birthday this year Ruth surprised me with a getaway to Midway to stay at the Homestead Resort in Midway. On the way to the resort we made a stop at the Tanger Outlets in Park City for a little shopping. Ruth was able to find a few good deals on clothes and I found a great deal on some spices and seasonings. After we'd had our fill of shopping, which didn't take that long, we made the last leg of the drive and got checked into our room. Little did we know that we were going to the most secure room in the entire resort. The key-card to our room appeared to be working, but we couldn't get through the door. After several minutes of unsuccessful attempts to get into the room we had to return to the front desk to ask for help. They dispatched a maintenance man to our room to look into the problem. It was a little embarrassing how quickly he was able to get us into the room, but he told us that the cold weather causes the locks to stick a bit. Even though he showed us the trick to get it open, it gave us trouble throughout our stay.Just after we got settled into our room we headed to the on-site restaurant called Simon's. Here is a sample of what we enjoyed for dinner:

Each table received a hot pot of bread

We shared an appetizer of fried cheese curds fresh from Heber Valley Artisan Cheese

Ruth ordered a chicken flatbread

I opted for something a little heartier and ordered the steak

The au-jus served with the steak really added to the flavor, and tasted great on the fries

To finish off the meal we were treated to some complimentary birthday ice cream. I was very grateful that this was not accompanied by a song from the staff.

After we finished with dinner we went back to the room for a quick pit-stop and to change into our swimsuits for the main event of the evening, a trip to the famous Homestead Crater. The crater is a hollowed out dome that has a geothermal spring running through it. The water temperature is always between 90-96 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is crystal clear. The temperature of the water was perfect for me because it wasn't as hot as a hot tub, which made it comfortable to stay in the water for a full hour. Everyone that goes into the water is required to wear a life jacket, which I was a little bit annoyed with at first, but it turned out to be a good thing for a couple of reasons. Because the crater is fed by a spring there is a current to the water, and it was very relaxing to just lay back and float around. The other reason is that the crater does go down about 65 feet. It is deep enough that there was a group working on their scuba certification while we were there.   

The tunnel entrance to the crater

This display gives an idea of what it's like inside the crater

The next morning we enjoyed a breakfast buffet at the other on site restaurant, Fanny's. After another great meal we spent some time wondering around the grounds to take in the scenery It was cold enough that we couldn't spend a lot of time outside, but here are a few pictures that show some highlights of what we saw:

The trip was definitely an unexpected surprise, and I really appreciate the effort Ruth made to make it happen. Thanks babe! 

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Legend Returns

After a 17 year hiatus, Salt Lake City had the privilege of hosting the country music icon Garth Brooks as part of his World Tour. While Garth was in town he performed 4 shows: one on Thursday night, two shows on Friday night, and a final show on Saturday night. I had always heard that he was one of the greatest entertainers because he brought such a high level of energy to his shows, but given his age and the number of shows he did in such a short window, I was blown away at the show he put on Saturday night.

Ruth and I felt very fortunate to get to attend the concert because we originally had no intentions of being able to go to it. I can remember hearing on the radio a few months back that Garth would be coming to Salt Lake, but I didn't hear anything else about it so I had forgotten all about it. Earlier in the week we found out that Farley and Tina had tickets to the show, and they were planning on staying at our house when they came up for it. As Ruth and I were getting ready for Farley and Tina to get here Ruth threw out the idea of going with them to the concert. I really didn't think there would be any tickets left, but we decided to take a look anyway. We found some tickets available on KSL Classifieds, but they were a little outside of the price range we wanted to pay. So we kind of abandoned the idea. Just before Farley and Tina made it to our house I decided to check one more time, and I wound up finding an incredible deal on Vivid Seats. With only about three hours left until showtime we purchased our tickets. While the decision to go was last minute, and a little spontaneous, it was definitely a great choice.

The opening act for the concert was a singer and songwriter named Karyn Rochelle. We found out later in the show that she is actually one of the back-up singers for Garth, but she did a really good job with her time in the spotlight. After Karyn finished her set there was a surprisingly long break before the rest of the show went on. Even though the wait was a bit of a drag, I could definitely feel the anticipation and excitement building. When Garth finally made it out on stage the arena erupted!

From the minute Garth stepped out on stage until the encore performances had ended the whole arena was energized. It was incredible to see how Garth and even the people in his band fed off of the energy from the crowd. Aside from how fun it was to be a part of that atmosphere it was also so much fun to hear and sing along with all of the classic hits that we know and love. There is just something about getting to sing along with the artist that made all of those songs so famous that really makes you feel connected to the artist. While our seating, the lighting, and the quality of the camera may not have been the best, I did manage to get a few pictures and videos during the concert. These pictures and clips are a bit random, but I was more focused on enjoying the show then trying to capture it.

 Garth was immortalized in the rafters with a banner for the most tickets ever sold

 Our seats were on the second row of the upper bowl. I think we got a better discount because they were side stage seats, but since Garth moved around so much I don't feel like we really missed out on anything.

     Any show would be awesome getting to sit next to such a pretty girl!

Who needs a lighter when everyone can just use their phones?

I don't know why this video skips and changes directions, but the first part turned out pretty good

Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House

The River

The Thunder Rolls

Probably the best video I got was of Friends in Low Places, but the file was too big to be uploaded to to the site. As the concert did happen on Halloween there were several fans who wore their costumes. While it wasn't a big surprise to see fans in costume, it was a pretty big surprise when Trisha Yearwood came out on stage dressed as a witch. 

I know that all entertainers do their best to make each city feel like their's is the greatest, but I think Garth may have had a little stronger connection to Salt Lake because of the impact it had on his career. Apparently the crowd at his show from 17 years ago helped the CEO of the record company understand how successful Garth would eventually become. I don't know if his shows here were impacted by that or not, but I know we received an awesome performance. Garth has definitely still got it, and we are lucky to have seen him perform. Thank you Farley and Tina for helping make this new memory possible!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Cruisin' the Caribbean

Last month Ruth and I had the chance to have an adventure on the high seas. Neither of us had ever been outside of the United States before, but we changed that in a big way on a 7 day cruise to the Western Caribbean. Our journey started on Friday September 25th when we boarded a Southwest airplane headed for Las Vegas. When we got to Las Vegas we had to switch planes and had a short layover. After a short break in the action we were back in the air and on our way to Houston.

When we got to Houston we spent the night at the DoubleTree near the Houston Hobby Airport. Along with being greeted by a warm chocolate chip cookie, there was also a cool aquarium in the lobby. The aquarium had a few varieties of fish, hermit crabs, and some very strange creatures that looked like a hybrid of eels and centipedes. Ruth managed to get a good video of the two clown fish that seemed strangely attracted to one area of the aquarium:

Disclaimer: The wonderful image of me at the end of this video is the result of not knowing if your wife is taking a picture, or shooting a video. Exercise caution when Ruth has her phone out!

That night we had dinner at The Boardwalk restaurant in the hotel. All of the food that was ordered by our group was delicious, and was a great introduction to the week of great food we would experience on the cruise ship.

Unfortunately Jason was out of the frame on this picture, but we were kind of spread out.

After dinner Ruth and I had the chance to take a dip in the pool.

Even the pool had some Texas pride!

The next morning we had breakfast at The Landing restaurant, also inside the DoubleTree.

After a good breakfast we were ready to hit the road. We took a very short shuttle ride back to the airport to get on a Carnival transfer to Port Galveston.There were two Carnival ships in the port so when they loaded the bus to get to the cruise terminal one side of the bus was for people setting sail on the Carnival Freedom, and the other side was for people setting sail on the Carnival Triumph. The people who were overseeing the loading of the bus were very adamant about passengers being on the correct side of the bus so that when we arrived at the cruise terminal it would be easier to get everyone to the correct location. So after the entire bus is filled another Carnival representative boards the bus to make sure that people are seated on the correct side of the bus and she got the two sides reversed. She mixed up the direction that we were told versus the direction she was facing. It was an easy mistake to make, but the funny part of the whole thing was watching how animatedly people reacted to the mix-up. By the way some people reacted you would think they were going to miss their entire vacation because they were on the wrong side of the bus. After that tiny hiccup we made about an hour long bus ride to Galveston and got ready to board the ship. Forrest, Shirley, and Jason did the smart thing by purchasing the Faster To The Fun feature offered by Carnival. By the time we made it on to the ship they had eaten lunch, located their rooms, and were enjoying a Diet Coke. Even though it was a longer wait and a bit of a hassle without the Faster To The Fun feature I think the excitement of getting on board kept building as we had to wait in line. I think the people who designed to terminal may have taken some tips from the people at Disney or Universal Studios because everytime you thought you were about to reach the end, it was just the beginning of another portion of the line. We did eventually make it to the end of the line and headed up the gangplank to board the Carnival Freedom

Almost there

After months of planning, preparation, and anticipation we are on board at last!

When we finally boarded the ship, I think Ruth and I were both amazed at the size of the ship and all that it had to offer.There was a lobby with an atrium, a full service spa, a gym (what kind of weirdo goes to the gym on vacation?), a few pools, and hot tubs, buffets, specialty dining options, a basketball court, miniature golf, an open air movie theater, an arcade, and much more. Needless to say there was never a lack of things to do, or food to be eaten. At first I thought it would take a really long time to become familiar enough with the layout of the ship to be able to navigate through it well, but I think we both caught on pretty quickly. While the rest of my family may have taken advantage of the Faster To The Fun feature, all of us were located in rooms on the ship that could have been dubbed the Faster To The Food rooms. We were on deck 8, the Veranda Deck, which was just beneath the Lido Deck where most of the eating options were available.  We did quite a bit of exploring the first couple of days on board, and here are some fun features and cool views from the ship:

 The atrium in the main lobby

 Looking out on the ocean from the back of the ship

 There was even a retractable roof of the back ship that covered a pool and a hot tub

 The Punchliner Comedy Club

 Guy Fieri's Burgers (Where we ate our first meal on board)

 A water-slide, which was a lot of fun

 The open air theater by the pool. The movies they showed every night were called Dive-In Movies

Ruth trying to measure up to the massive tail on the back end of the ship

It took a while to get everyone boarded, but once everyone was on the ship we had to go to a mandatory safety meeting at our assigned muster station. The muster station was the assigned spot on the ship that passengers were supposed to gather at in case of an emergency. Once we all got some basic instruction we were ready to set sail:

Leaving Galveston behind for a week of fun.

By the time we returned from the safety meeting our bags had been delivered to our room. The rooms on the ship were small and a little plain, but there were comfortable. I think the rooms are kind of basic because most of the passengers don't spend a lot of time in their rooms. We wound up purchasing a room with a balcony, which I was wondering if it would be worth the extra expense, but I quickly found out that it was very worth it. Not only did the balcony provide a nice place to relax, it provided a more private place to enjoy some beautiful views. Ruth even saw some dolphins shortly after we left the port in Galveston.

Just an example of the great scenery we had just outside our room

Before we headed to the formal dining hall for dinner on the first night we got to meet our room steward Budi. He took great care of us all week, and he managed to remember our names from our very first meeting. It was kind of funny when we told him our names because he had a hard time with Ruth's name. The first time we told him Ruth's name he thought we had said Rick. Since we didn't want Ruth being called Rick all week we corrected him and from then on she was Miss Root.

Our room steward Budi

Our first night eating in the formal dining room was a little hectic because each group had to be shown where their assigned table would be, but every night after that was much smoother because guests were allowed to seat themselves. This probably won't come as a surprise to those who know me, but I think the dining room might have been my favorite place on the whole ship. Aside from getting to participate in my favorite activity, eating, it was elevated to another level because of all of the elegant dishes and the unique foods I had the opportunity to try. Here is what I had that first night:

 Appetizer: Shrimp Cocktail

 Entree: Beef Brisket with Twice Baked Yams and Baked Beans

 Dessert: Melting Chocolate Cake (As you dig deeper into the cake it gets more and more moist)

  Ruth opted for the Vegetable Lasagna with a side of Mixed Vegetables (I think we know who will live longer)

Each night when we got back to our room, the bed had received a turn-down service, and we had a towel animal to greet us.

The first night we were greeted by a Seal

After a good nights sleep we were ready for the first of two consecutive days at sea. We took the opportunity to sleep in and wake up slow. For all of the sea days on the ship there was a special brunch in the formal dining room.

 I enjoyed a Bagel with Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese &.....

 Eggs Benedict with a side of Homestyle Potatoes

Ruth had some Fresh Fruit and a Spinach Omelette

In the early afternoon I went to a cooking demonstration at the on board Steakhouse Sun King. Given the quality of ingredients used, the expertise of the chefs, and the way they made it all look so easy made me feel like I was part of a live Food Network special. Along with getting to watch some skilled cooking I also got to sample the dishes they were making. I got to sample a Mushroom Cappuccino ( a delicious mushroom soup with a foam on top), a Baby Spinach & Blue Cheese salad (elevated with finely chopped mushrooms, bacon, and a Parmesan Crisp), Broiled Chicken Supreme (chicken breast seared and finished in the oven served with Fried Potatoes and a 4-Cheese Mac and Cheese). 

 The chefs sharing some tips and tricks for the kitchen

 The chicken was insanely juicy and paired really well with the sides

 Another chef showed off his artistic side by carving this watermelon during the presentation

 The detail of his work was amazing

Later that afternoon an announcement came over the PA system informing us that one passenger had a medical emergency that required immediate attention. At this point we were making our way into the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. So the ship made a u-turn and started to head towards New Orleans. They informed us that we would not be going back to shore, but the Coast Guard would be sending a helicopter to evacuate the passenger in need of medical attention. Although we didn't even get close to New Orleans, I was surprised how far we went in that direction

This shot of our progress shows the overall effect of our detour

There was a very noticeable increase in our speed in meeting up with the coast guard, and afterward to try and recover some of the time that was lost in trying to save the passenger who needed medical attention. For obvious reasons all passengers were forced to clear out from the open deck areas of the ship while the extraction took place. When the rescue helicopter arrived we were enjoying another great meal in the formal dining room.

 Appetizer #1: Mushroom Soup

 Appetizer #2: Fried Oysters

 Entree: Lobster Tail with Shrimp Pasta

 Jason & I also ordered a Spaghetti Carbonara to share with our table

  Dessert: Creme Brulee

Dinner that evening was one of two formal nights held on the ship. Everyone who wanted to eat in the dining room was required to adorn their formal wear to get in. There were some who chose to take this very seriously and wore tuxedos and evening gowns. We didn't take it quite that far, but I think we looked more than presentable.

 Ruth looking stunning as usual

I needed to display Ruth's appetizer for the picture to make it turn out a little better

After dinner we made our first trip to the Punchliner Comedy Club. The club did four shows every night that it was open. There were two PG Family Friendly shows and two adults only shows. We took advantage of the PG shows to get in some good laughs. The comedian we watched that night was Valarie Storm. Her act was titled Parental Soup, and she shared several funny insights about being a mom. When the show was over Ruth and I went poolside to watch part of the late Dive-In movie for the night The Fault in Our Stars. We didn't stay for the whole thing, but it was a fun experience to watch a movie in that setting. There were two short intervals during the movie where it started raining, but they were so light and short that they didn't drive us back inside the ship. When we did make it back to our room we had a puppy to greet us:

The next day was another day at sea, so we had another chance to sleep in and take it easy. We also had another chance to try something new at the brunch in the formal dining room. 

I started the day with a Mushroom & Pepper Omelette, Cheese Grits and a side of Bacon

When we finished with breakfast Ruth and I decided to hit up one of the pools. My first trip into the water came by going down the water-slide, and I was in for a surprise when I reached the bottom. When the water washed over my head at the bottom of the slide I was hit with a salty wave. That is when I learned that all of the pools on board are filled with filtered sea water. It makes sense not to use water stored on the ship that could be used for more essential functions, but I still wasn't expecting it. Later in the afternoon I went to the arcade with Forrest and Jason. We had a little air hockey tournament that was a little one-sided. Jason and I put up a good fight, but we just couldn't beat the old man! The air hockey tables in the arcade were pac-man themed, and at intervals during the game they would flood the tables with mini-pucks that would start a chaotic scramble in the game.As the day wound down we made our way to the dining room for more new and exciting food.

 Appetizer #1: Braised Rabbit

 Appetizer #2: Seared Tuna

 Entree: Rosemary Lamb Shank

 Dessert: Coconut Lime Cake (Both the cake and the frosting were so light that it practically dissolved in your mouth)

 Ruth's Dessert: Strawberry Almond Financier with a Chilled Rhubarb Soup

After another incredible meal we headed back to the Punchliner Comedy Club to watch an act called My Booger Baby by Ronnie Bullard. 

 Taking a selfie in the Comedy Club before the show starts

 Forrest & Shirley were ready for a good laugh

When we got back to our room no intervention was needed, but there was still an elephant in the room

To cap off the night Forrest and I stayed up late to go see Avengers Age of Ultron for the late night Dive-In movie. I had seen Age of Ultron in theaters but Forrest hadn't had the chance to see it yet. It was another beautiful night, and getting to watch a movie with some popcorn on a couple of deck chairs with my dad made it even better.

When we woke up the next morning we were approaching Mahogany Bay on Isla Roatan which is about 30 miles off the coast of Honduras. It was a little strange to see land again after seeing nothing but water as far as the eye could see for two days. It's always a little frustrating knowing that no matter how many pictures you take or how good they are, you can never truly capture what you are experiencing. A video is one step closer, so here is a little clip of what we saw coming into the bay:

 Getting closer to shore

I guess this is what happens if your ship goes outside of the buoys leading up to the port

When the ship was finally docked we disembarked for our first foreign adventure. A short walk from the ship through a winding path of lush greenery brought us to the center of a little shopping district. Aside from getting our first glimpse at what the island had to offer this was also the gathering spot for all of the cruise sponsored excursions. We quickly found our designated spot, got our wrist bands and waited for our departure. 

Ruth ready for some freedom away from the Freedom

 An island welcome to Mahogany Bay

The vibrant colors of the plant life made for some excellent scenery

 As much as we loved the movies we were hoping not to encounter to many of the first group

 Excitedly waiting for the excursion to begin

It might be a little hard to see, but this lizard was our first wildlife sighting on the island

After about a half hour wait we were ready to board a bus that would take us to Gumbalimba Park on the southwest tip of the island. The bus ride was about 45 minutes, but to help pass the time a tour guide provided information about life on the island and answered questions. During the ride we learned that the island was named after a large indigenous rodent, iguanas are used as a source of protein (and they do NOT taste like chicken), and that for a fee anyone can get a drivers license. Aside from the facts being shared by the tour guide, it was interesting to catch a glimpse of how the people of the island live.

 It's probably pretty easy to spot the first time international travelers when you see them taking pictures of license plates

Sebastian tried to hitch a ride on our bus when he heard we would be close to the beach

The entrance to the park, complete with a single cannon security system

As soon as we arrived at the park we were given a quick orientation on the layout of the park and given a chance for a quick pit-stop. Before we started the walking tour of the park our tour guide advised us to be aware of our surroundings so that we didn't get too close to the iguanas. I didn't think that  we would run into that many iguanas because they would be trying to avoid all the people, but I was very wrong. Not only were the iguanas everywhere, they seemed content to let people get pretty close.

 An endangered black iguana enjoying some fruit

 An iguana catching a little sun on the roof top

 The lizard mess hall

 I couldn't believe how bright the colors were on some of the iguanas

 The largest iguana in the center of the platform wold shake its beard and send all the others scurrying away

An iguana doing it's best tiger impression

Although this is a terrible picture of it, we did spot one of the rodents that the island was named for (R.O.U.S.'s for any Princess Bride fans)

The next major attraction we got to see in the park were the macaws. There were some macaws in cages and some that were roaming free. Apparently there is only one macaw in the park that is mellow enough to allow visitors a great photo-op and his name is Barney. While Barney is calm enough to hang out on tourists shoulders for a few minutes, he is a big fan of the little buttons on top of baseball hats.About the time Barney started resting on my shoulder he started to chew on the top of my hat. I didn't think he would do any serious, damage, but when I was having my picture taken with him I was told that he had ripped the button off of my hat. I had to wait for a few more visitors to get their pictures taken with Barney before he finally got tired of my button and dropped it.

 Pretending not to pay attention

Realizing that the coast is clear

 Time to make off with a drink and a new perch

 An impressive tail

 The colors on these birds was incredible

 Introducing Barney (Phase 1 - Locate the Button)

 Phase 2 - "with the right leverage and the proper application of strength" (Shout-out to Will Turner on the Original Pirates of the Caribbean)

 Phase Three - Remove the Button

Despite the smile from Ruth here, she was not too comfortable with Barney on her shoulder because she could hear him chewing on the button. Imagine what that beak would do to an earlobe!

Barney eventually decided to give my button back, so I guess I won't hold a grudge

After collecting my button from Barney, we were off to see the main attraction of the park, the monkeys! The time that we got to spend with the monkeys was truly an encounter because there were no cages or any other barriers to prevent interaction. We were given some advice about interacting with the monkeys when we got to the park. We were told that they would often wrap their tails around guests necks to help them balance. Based on how the guides described this I'm guessing more than a couple of people freaked out in the past, due to this. They also advised the guests to not fight with the monkeys if they tried to take any belongings. To help ease this problem they recommended that no one carry any bags if at all possible because the monkeys would be able to get inside and play with the contents. When we were first told this I thought it might be a trick to help boost locker rentals, but it was definitely sound advise. The monkeys played with my hat and sunglasses. There was also a lady in our group who kept a small purse on her, and one of the monkeys got into it and tried to open her lip gloss. I have to admit that there were two things that really surprised me about being with the monkeys. First, they were very social and comfortable with all of the guests I thought they might be a little skittish or standoffish, but they were very friendly. The other thing that really surprised me was how soft they were. Their fur was much softer than I though it would be, and their hands and feet were almost like velvet. I figured that living in the trees would make their hands and feet rough and calloused, but they were incredibly soft. Between the shots we took on our own, and the shots we bought from the park we wound up with a ton of monkey pictures. If anyone wants to see all of them we are happy to share them, but for the sanity of anyone who might read this here are a few of the best:

♫Won't you take me to...MONKEY TOWN♫

 Ruth experiencing a nuzzle.

 "We named the monkey Jack" Plenty of great Pirates quotes to go around when you are actually in the Caribbean.

 A great example of how they can use their tails for balance. This guy was about to make a diving grab of a treat from one of the guides.

Yup, caught it!

Monkey: "Ruth I think you married my cousin!"

 Are they trained to braid hair? No, but they will pick out the treat that was dropped in Ruth's hair!

 After Ruth and I had our turn with the monkeys we were watching some of the other guests interacting with the monkeys when I spotted a cool potential photo-op. I saw a monkey lazily sprawled out on a branch so I tried to get a little closer to get a better picture. The monkey saw me coming towards the tree and popped up off the branch. The monkey moved to where it was looking at me from behind the trunk of the tree. Even though this wasn't the shot I was hoping for it still looked good so I got a few steps closer and pause to take a picture. As evidenced by the blur on the left side of this picture the monkey jumped from the tree just as I took the picture and landed on my back. We had been warned that this might happen, so I wasn't worried at all.

 Most of the other monkeys were very intent on staying close to the guides that were handing out the treats, but this one was content to just hang out with me for the rest of our time with the monkeys. As our group was leaving the monkey experience this little guy had to be coaxed off my back with a treat and some encouragement from one of the guides.

 Rewarding the loyalty with a good back scratch.

 This monkey definitely channeled its inner Curious George. As you can see from my skewed hat it checked the hat out for a second. It found my sunglasses far more interesting though. I think it could see its own reflection because it kept pawing at the lens, and even licked the lens at one point.

 To end the monkey experience on a high note, here is a very cute picture of Ruth with one of the monkeys.

After getting to experience the monkeys of Gumbalimba Park we wound our way back to where the tour started. At this point we were free to use the pool, wander the grounds on our own, or just enjoy the beach. We spent a few minutes on the beach, but we ultimately decided to head back towards the ship. I think we would have been a little more inclined to spend more time on the beach but there were some locals trying very hard to get you to purchase their merchandise. I can't blame them for trying to make a living, but it does detract from the relaxing atmosphere you hope for while at the beach.

 This is how close the starting/stopping point of our tour was to the beach

There were a variety of palms in different stages of growth leading up to the water

I was very excited to find a live starfish just a few feet off of the shoreline

To cap off our time in Mahogany Bay, Ruth and I were able to get our very first passport stamps. We didn't think we would get any stamps because we were told that it is not the best idea to carry your passport with you on the shore excursions. Since our ship came right up to the port it was easy for us to get back on the ship and grab our passports and head back out to get them stamped.

Aside from having a nice map of the island, this shot shows the booth on the far right where we got our passports stamped.

After an adventure filled day we were ready for a good meal, and the dinner service did not disappoint. 

 Appetizer #1: Braised Ox Tongue

 Appetizer #2: Prosciutto Ruffles

 Entree: Pescado Asado Cubierto Con Tostones (translation: fried fish breaded with breadcrumbs and plantains served with a mixture of corn, plantains and beans)

Dessert: S'mores Parfait

Most of the entertainment for the evening was provided by Hasbro Game Night Live in the main auditorium. It was fun to watch how excited some of the other passengers got about the chance to make fools of themselves onstage. Aside from that here are a couple of highlights that closed out our day:

Catching a glimpse of the sunset as we left Mahogany Bay behind

 Ruth and I shared a virgin Pina Colada while Forrest, Shirley, and Jason enjoyed a final Diet Coke for the evening at the Red Frog Pub. While we were there we also got to enjoy some plantain chips (possibly Ruth's favorite food item of the whole trip) and play an interesting game. A picture would have been great to show what the game was, but I forgot to get a picture of it. The game was a little four sided stand that had a ring attached to a ring on each side. The object of the game was to swing the string in such a way that the ring would catch on a little hook in the middle of the stand. It was surprisingly challenging, but we all had some good laughs while playing.

 This picture makes it a little hard to tell, but we were eventually greeted by a rabbit back in our room.

Our next stop on our tour of the Caribbean was Belize. At this port the ship did not go all the way into the harbor, so tender boats were used to shuttle passengers back and forth. The ride on the tender boats took about 20 minutes each way, so when we finally got close to shore this was our first glimpse of Belize:

 Looking into Belize City

We were told that there is a tomb at the base of this lighthouse. The man buried in the tomb fell in love with Belize, so when he died he left a large sum of money to the country. Belize now uses the interest earned on those funds to finance projects that will benefit the entire country (i.e. building schools or hospitals).

After making the 5 mile journey from the ship to shore, we made our way to the gathering spot for all excursions. The process of getting everyone where they needed to be was a little more hectic here than in Mahogany Bay. There were a lot of different groups trying to get organized in a pretty confined space. Luckily the people who are leading the excursions deal with this everyday and managed to get people sorted out quicker than I thought they would. When everyone had queued up we headed for our bus to take us into the jungle. We were in for a bus ride that would take an hour and a half each way, which seemed like it could be really unpleasant, but our tour guides did a great job of keeping us entertained along the way. Our primary tour guide was Elvis, not the King, but I would wager that our Elvis had more energy and stamina than the King would have had at any of his shows. We also had another guide named Tarik (pronounced ty-reke), who was a lot more mellow, but a good guide nonetheless. Elvis and Tarik did a great job of explaining some of the history and points of interest from the country. We were told to pay attention to some of the information they were giving us because answering a trivia question correctly on the ride back to the port could help us win a prize. Knowing that a prize was on the line these were some of the key facts that I could remember:

- Belize was formerly known as British Honduras 
- National Animal: Mountain Cow
- National Bird: Toucan
- National Flower: Black Orchid
- National Tree: Mahogany
- Four major highways: North, South, West, and Hummingbird
- Only country in Central America where English is the official language

Paying attention payed off because I was able to win a set of Belize coins for remembering the names of the four highways in Belize! Along with pointing out things that could be seen along our route to the jungle, Elvis had also prepared posters to show us more of what Belize had to offer. These posters included depictions of all of the different cultures in Belize, some Mayan ruins, native wildlife (animals, birds, snakes) and local currency. Before we arrived at our destination we were asked to pick a group name so that when we needed to regroup it would be easy to find each other. As we were headed to the Jaguar Jungle Camp I suggested that we be the Jaguars, and it got the most votes by far. With our group name picked and the bus ride behind us we were ready to get out and start our cave tubing adventure!

This bus took us to a transfer point where we boarded another bus to take us the last mile or two into the camp. I guess the tour buses are a little too nice to make the last leg of the journey.

When we reached the camp we were divided into groups of eight, given a life-jacket, a helmet with a headlamp, and an inner-tube. With all of our gear we were ready to start our hike through the jungle. Our river guide was named Charles, and he gave us a lot of information about some of the plants and wildlife in the area. Before we got too far along the trail he asked if anyone was afraid of spiders. I usually don't feel too ashamed of admitting my fear of spiders, but I must say that I was a little ashamed that I was the only one who admitted to having a case of arachnophobia. Charles advised that I try to stay in the middle of the path as it was not uncommon to see tarantulas in the undergrowth on the sides of the path. Needless to say I did my very best to stay in the center of the path after that little announcement. Along our route Charles pointed out some very large termite nests. Charles explained that his former military training had taught him some very helpful things about the termites. He said that the termites could be eaten, and that they were a great source of protein. He also explained that they can be crushed and rubbed on the skin to cool the skin, and to provide a natural bug repellent. Both of these effects are produced from a minty sensation and smell that the termites give off after they are crushed. To push the point further he said that they even taste minty when eaten. This prompted one member of our group to say they would try eating termites if given the chance. So at the next big nest we passed Charles went to the nest to retrieve a sample. Since I didn't think I would have another opportunity to eat something like that I decided to go ahead and give it a try. These termites were very small, about the size of very tiny ants, and the procedure for eating them is to ball a few of them up without crushing them and placing them on the tip of your tongue. When they are in your mouth you use your front teeth to grind them up. As soon as you can taste the minty sensation from crushing them they can be swallowed. I definitely didn't expect to be eating bugs on a luxury vacation, but I can say I'm glad I took advantage of the opportunity. 

Our hike through the jungle only lasted about a half an hour, but it included crossing the river once at what would ultimately be the end of our tubing experience. Once we got to the starting point all of our tubes were tied together so that Charles could guide us more easily through the caves. Before we got into the caves I was a little disappointed that we all had to be tied together, but after going through the caves I understand why they do it that way. We were told that the entrance to the caves were once believed to be the entrance to the underworld, and that certain sacrificial ceremonies used to take place in the caves. It was truly amazing to see the rock formations in the caves, the stalagmites and stalactites, and the different colors on the rocks. Making our way through the caves on a guided tour was quite relaxing, but I couldn't help but think how different things would be if someone got lost or trapped in the caves. It would get real creepy real fast. In one of the bigger caves there was also a little waterfall that our guide maneuvered us over to. He spun us around so that everyone had a chance to go underneath the rushing, and very cold water. Unfortunately we did  not have a waterproof camera to take through the caves to try and capture some of what we saw, but it was an amazing experience.

After our time in the caves was through we made our way back to camp, got rid of all of our gear, and had some lunch. As part of our excursion we were provided with a local lunch of stewed chicken, rice & beans, and coleslaw. The flavor of everything was delicious, and it tasted even sweeter after our long bus ride and trek through the jungle. 

 Team Jaguar's prettiest member displaying the local flavors of our lunch

We had lunch with another guest named Charlie and his wife (we never caught her name) from Tyler Texas. It was kind of fun because after that experience we saw them a couple of times back on the ship, and it gave us a familiar face to say hello to while on board. We even managed to see them right before we disembarked the ship for the last time so we got to say goodbye to them. Getting back to the story at hand though, when we had cleaned our plates we headed into the gift-shop to see the photos that were taken of us along our way in and out of the caves. To our dismay, about the time we got in the door we were told that it was time for our group to leave. So unfortunately we do not have any pictures from our tubing adventure. I know it doesn't do any curious readers any good, but the experience will just have to be preserved in our memories. I guess Carnival will be excited that we will have to tell everyone to go experience this for themselves. Although we missed out on getting photos from our excursion we were able to catch a glimpse of another beautiful sunset as we left Belize.

As our tour guide Elvis would have said, this sunset was un-Belize-able. You better Belize it!

Back on board we were able to meet up with our group at the dinner table to discuss a day of fun as we enjoyed another excellent meal

Appetizer #1: Escargot
Appetizer #2: Fry Jacks (I must have forgotten to snap a photo of these, but the best way I can describe them is the Belize equivalent to sopapillas)

 Entree: A seafood penne with shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels, salmon, and a lobster sauce

Dessert: Chocolate Panna Cotta

When we were all fed and watered we decided to go see a show called 88 Keys, which featured a pianist playing some classic hits. The show eventually evolved into a very energetic song and dance routine, but most of the music was very good. 

After another great day we were greeted by a The head suggests duck, but the body left us wondering if it might have been a platypus.

The next morning we awoke to the sight of our final port of call, Cozumel Mexico. Of all the great places we had the chance to visit on this trip, I think Cozumel was my favorite port. While each stop had its highlights, I think this port aligned with the vision of a tropical paradise that I had imagined. Along with the amazing excursion we were able to experience, there was a lot of picturesque sights and photo-ops.

 Pulling in to port

 Ruth sporting the red, white, and blue in from of the red, white, and green

 Apparently it was too bright for me to open my eyes in this shot

 The replica of the ruins in the fountain were awesome

Channeling my inner burro. 

After taking a quick look around the port we got checked in for our excursion called Everybody Loves Rays! If the name wasn't a dead give away, this excursion provided the chance to interact with sting rays. After we checked we had to wait a few minutes for the rest of our group to check in. While we were waiting for everyone to show up our tour greeter, Edgar, told us that due to some unusual weather the beach we were headed to had a lot of seaweed that had been washed into the bay. He made it sound like it would be a pretty big deal, but it didn't really have much of an impact on our day. What was more noticeable was how choppy the waters were. We were told that the waters are normally much calmer, but we still had a great time. We took a short taxi ride to Sting Ray Beach.

 Welcome to String Ray Beach!

 Yes, that is a live iguana

 There were originally only supposed to be 8 people in our group, but a family of four joined the group at the last minute. Even with the extra four people the group was small enough that we got a lot of personal attention from the staff.

Our main guide William gave us a little rundown before we got in the water with the rays

The actual sting ray experience was divided into three portions: feeding, handling, and snorkeling. I know this will be a bit of a weird comparison, but as we got into the water to feed the rays it was like running into a bunch a sea cats. As soon as we got into the water the rays knew what was coming and they started swarming. They kept weaving in and out of our legs and brushing up against us. After we had a minute to get used to the rays we were all give a handful of squid to feed to the rays. It took a couple of tries to figure out how long to hang on to the squid to make sure the rays had a good grip on it. When they were eating it was a combination of slurping in the squid and chewing it. As I was feeding one of the rays I held onto the squid a little too long and got bitten. I was able to get my finger out of the way pretty quickly, so there was no harm done. Next we got to get a closer look at two of the rays, and even got to hold them. While we were interacting with the rays our guides gave us some interesting facts about the beautiful creatures we were swimming with. We learned that rays give birth once a year, but they typically have three offspring at a time. The baby rays are independent right away, and do not need to spend any additional time with the mother. The male rays are smaller and usually only grow to be 2-3 feet in diameter. The females can grow to be as big as 6-8 feet in diameter. The defensive barbs of the rays are located at the base of the tail, not on the end, and the barbs can get up to a foot long. The tails are very rough and can be used as a whip as another means of defense. When we finished playing with the rays we suited up with some snorkeling gear and headed back into the water. Neither Ruth nor I had done any snorkeling before, but I think we got the hang of it pretty quickly and got to enjoy our time in the water. The guides took some food out into the water to help bring the fish closer to where we were snorkeling, so we were able to get up close to a lot of the fish.

 The female ray that we got the chance to interact with

 As you can see, these rays have had their barbs trimmed to  avoid any mishaps

 I was impressed with how brave Ruth was in getting close to the rays

 Ruth and I both had a harder time working with the male ray. It was so much smaller that it was hard not to lift it out of the water

 Our other guide Alejandro helping us get a good handle on the ray

 It was incredible how calm the rays were being handled by so many different people

 It might be hard to tell but I think Ruth actually made the ray blush!

I don't think I made the ray blush, but I couldn't pass up a photo-op like this

This is one of the 'postcard' photos that come with the purchased prints, but it gives a good glimpse into what we were able to see while snorkeling.

When we finished our time with the rays we had a chance to explore the rest of the facilities and spend some time on the beach. Here are a few highlights:

 A little slice of heaven relaxing in paradise

 This view is hard to beat

 The baby rays really blended in with the sand

 This shows the contrast in color a little better

 These weren't as impressive as the parrots we saw in Mahogany Bay, but they were just as loud

 Killer had enough energy to do some climbing

 Looking out into where we did our snorkeling

 A view of how the seaweed was accumulating in some places

 The rays were still swimming in the feeding area

 William did a great job during the snorkeling to keep the fish around all of the guests

Alejandro took great care of us and made sure we were having a good time

While we were at the beach we got to participate in a hermit crab race. William drew a big circle in the sand and then drew a small circle in the center of the big circle. Everyone was given a chance to pick and name their crab. I took a gamble on the biggest crab knowing that it could cover a lot of ground really quickly. I named my crab Paco in honor of a childhood pet. When the race started, Paco was content to just sit in the center circle for a few seconds before getting in gear. Once he finally started moving he made great time. Paco wound up finishing third and winning me a prize!

Check out Paco in action

 The top three finishers won a prize. One of the top finishers was a young boy so he was given a bag of snacks. The adult winners were supposed to get a free shot of tequila, but they were willing to give me a soda instead.

A very poor rendition of the Heisman pose with my victory soda.

Before heading back to the ship we spent a little more time exploring the port and enjoying the great scenery. Here is a sample of what we saw:

 Welcome to Puerta Maya

Wait, where are we?

This mosaic fountain is a good example of the vibrant colors that are everywhere in the port

See what I mean about the vibrant colors?

The sun peeking through the palm leaves

Ignoring my reflective white leg, this shot turned out pretty good

We had to complete the set and get a license plate shot from Mexico

Ruth found a place for us to relax right before we re-boarded the ship

Tropical selfie

This would make a great travel postcard

As we headed back out to sea for the last time we joined Forrest, Shirley, and Jason on the balcony to catch a final glimpse of Cozumel:

Hanging out on the balcony

There was a huge Royal Caribbean ship in port that day as well. It was cool to see how many of the rooms had balconies. 

Adios Cozumel

That night on board we all went to the Sun King Steakhouse. I didn't think that our dining experience could have been elevated to another level of elegance based on the amazing meals we had been having all week, but the steakhouse kicked it up a notch.

 Appetizer #1: Pea Soup with a Lobster Foam

Appetizer #2: Crab Cake

 Ruth made sure to get a picture of everyone dressed up for the occasion

I returned the favor, and got a shot of Ruth enjoying her Lobster Bisque

 Gary and Carrie enjoying their steaks

Forrest and Shirley having a great meal

Jason also wanted to get photos of everyone, but the timing didn't quite work

Entree: Filet Mignon and Lobster Tail which came with a side of broccoli. I also got some sauteed mushrooms from Shirley's plate that really complimented my steak

I was shocked, but very impressed that Ruth ordered Filet Mignon too. I just might make a carnivore out of her yet.

Dessert: Cheesecake

After an incredible meal at the steakhouse we watched another act at the Punchliner Comedy Club. The new Comedian on board was Cowboy Bill Martin, and his act was titled How's Your Mama? There were a lot of passengers from Texas, and Oklahoma so he received a very warm welcome at the club. When we finally made it back to our room for the night we were greeted by a.........


Our last day on the ship was very low-key and relaxing. I kind of thought we would be super busy trying to fit some last minute things in, but we took a completely different approach. It turns out that spending the entire day relaxing was the way to go because we both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I completely understand why most of the time people try to cram activities into every minute of a vacation, but ending a vacation on such a relaxing note is fantastic. I think the only major things we did during the day were having breakfast and lunch, and we watched the Bee Movie in our room before taking a nap. We did manage to makeit into the formal dining room for one last formal meal.

 Appetizer #1: Frog Legs

Appetizer #2: Beef Carpaccio (Super thinly sliced raw beef garnished with greens, parmesan, and capers

Entree: Prime Rib with Bacon Mac and Cheese....

and a side of fries

I wound up coming full-circle with dessert by ordering the Chocolate Melting Cake again. I had been hoping that there would be another night that wouldn't have something on the dessert menu that would be too tempting to miss out on so that I could get the melting cake again. As it was our last meal in the formal dining room we had to get a picture with our favorite server.

Tanja (not a typo) was not our main server, but she was always very nice and took great care of us.

Our last night was capped off with a final trip to the Punchliner Comedy Club to watch Kim Harrison perform her act called Show Tunes and Tears. I think the most memorable part of her act came when she sang a rendition of the Phantom of the Opera called the Phantom of the Okra. Her rendition described her anguish from dealing with her husband's gas. 

The next morning we were back in Galveston, and we had to go through the process of going through customs. It didn't take as long as it did to get on the ship, but it was still a bit of a process. Ruth and I opted to do the self-assist debarkation which allowed us to keep our bags with us the whole time. This got us off of the boat faster, and I think it made the whole process more convenient. We had to wait about a half an hour at the airport before we were reunited with my parents and Gary and Carrie. Jason went to the other airport in Houston to catch a flight to Florida. We left Houston, had a short layover in Phoenix, and then back to Salt Lake. I think it is safe to say that the cruise either lived up to or exceeded all of our expectations. We are so glad that we were able to enjoy the trip with some of my family, and we are very thankful to Jason for helping it all come together as smoothly as it did. Going on a cruise was definitely a bucket list item for me, and with any luck this will not be last cruise Ruth and I get to experience!